THE BATTLE OF LE MANDINGUE

 

Cassidy soaked a white bandanna in a bucket of tequila and tied it around his forehead like a Japanese hachimaki.

 

"No way, man."

 

"Way. It'll cool you right down. Old trick I learned back in Nam."

 

So I did likewise, and lo and behold in a few minutes I was feeling more relaxed already. I took a hit on the hibiscus bhong. In the distance toward the east, lasers probed the sky. There was an occasional soft "poof" as ack-ack guns and tracers hit their targets.

 

"Cool light-show, man," I observed.

 

"Yeah. That's the Penn UCD militia pulling back to the Green Line. They're digging out a few clusters of entrenched settlers."


August 2005. University City Village lay in ruins. Bed Heads with youthful faces from Brooklyn wandered the streets, looking for real estate bargains among the decaying though charming and elegant old Victorians, a bargain in this year of Grace being considered anything less than a cool million for a 3-bedroom fixer-upper with the original clawfoot tub. Rabid Dog People clogged the sidewalks circulating petitions asserting their right to parade their noxious beasts unfettered through Clark Park, while earnest Boy Scout Masters circulated petitions asserting *their* right to parade pestilential small children, unleashed, through the Park. The Undecided Dog People circulated their own petitions declaring it their privilege *not* to take a doggie position; the National Pitbull Association trumpeted its own unique position affirming the divine right of doggies to tear to shreds any stray cats or small children; Rabid People People loudly championed *their* right to shoot pit bulls, Rottweilers, or Dog People on sight, fry them in butter, and barbecue them at midnight in front of the Dickens statue.

 

In what little room remained on the streets and sidewalks of UC Village among the Beemers, Hummers and aggressive cyclists, diminutive Bushpeople from the Kalahari hunted birds and small rodents to fill the menus and tables at Le Mandingue Ristorante, a noted hangout for African cabdrivers, large black men speaking exotic patoises, and florid women in flowery jumbalayas and backpacks featuring “Scrunch the Cat for Mayor” buttons.

 

Under such conditions it was not strange that I found it very difficult to get any sleep at all during the dog days and nights of August. At all hours strangers were wont to ring my doorbell. Frequently it was only Adeline Dutoit, Fresh Princess of UC Village, notifying me in breathless gasps that my roof was on fire, or inquiring whether I had received Kyle Cassidy as my personal savior. Despite the fact that I had hung a huge banner over my doorway proclaiming in large black letters “NO ELVIS WITNESSES, PLEASE!,” earnest purveyors of Calvinism, Anabaptism, Fire-Baptized Holiness Baptism, Mahayana Buddhism, Devananda Hoochie-Koo Yoga, Flagellant Shiite Islam, and Restorationist Judaism seemed to find my humble abode an inviting target and sought to engage me in late-night discussions of predestination, karma, Tikkun Olam, and the Tantric Wisdom of Investing in Small-Cap Stocks.

 

Toward the third week of the month I finally gave up. I went down to the basement and mixed up a batch of designer methamphetamine, climbed up to the roof and resolved to spend the nights up there in the gazebo until the craziness had passed and the cool autumn had arrived.

 

Imagine my surprise to find Cassidy already ensconced thereabove.

 

“Yo, Dude!” I greeted him, perplexed. “How’d you get up here, man? I thought I had all my doors locked and barred against noxious intruders.”

 

“Adeline let me in with her spare key.”

 

“Adeline?? How the hell did *she* get a spare key? As far as I know she’s not my frigging landlady! Yet! Though if she keeps buying up property in the hood she may very well soon become so.”

 

“Chill, dude,” he said. “She’s the Fresh Princess and President, Secretary and Treasurer of the UCCCCC. She’s just lookin’ out for yer own good.”

 

“I’ve got an official court-appointed guardian to do *that*, man. Don’t need Adeline to do it too.”

 

I waxed wroth and rended my garment.

 

“Like I said, dude, chill out. Here, join me as I indulge in some mellow bhong hits.”

 

“No way, man. Last time I smoked some of your special nasturtium blend I couldn’t think straight for three days. Went up in a tree in Clark Park and recited the Bhagavad Gita from beginning to end, in addition to taking out several Rottweilers, a Great Dane and a frigging Borzoi with my Bulgarian Shipka, using the special mail-order scope and silencer I got from the Walmart catalog. Finally the UCD ice-cream truck came around with their butterfly nets and took me in for a little rest at the loony-bin down the road.”

 

“By the ‘loony-bin’ I perceive you allude to the Institute for Cognitive Science down at Penn?”

 

“Yeah, man. Fortunately they sprung me after 72 hours. Never wanna see the inside of that joint again, man. Last time I did some hard time there they had me strapped down on a bed for a month while this Gujarati chick in a flimsy sari flagellated me with bamboo shoots. Shot me up with a cocktail of ropadopamine and seroquel till I was so stable I didn’t come down for a month. Then I had to attend lectures with titles like Psycholinguistic and Computational Perspectives on Disfluences in Language Comprehension. It was living hell. Sort of a Gitmo North.”

 

“Gujarati chick, huh? Was she hot?”

 

“I dunno, man. Kinda hard to tell through the haze. Anyhow they finally let me out for good behavior and a promise to stay away from the Upanishads. Hey, no problem, I said. If I never see another Veda again it will be too soon. Man, I was just glad to get outta that joint without a fuckin lobotomy. They were talking about having me come back in for a hippocampal prosthesis, said it would improve my memory, but I told *them*, hey, I got all the memory I need – 20,000 gigs by last count and rising, short-term, long-term, everything in between. I told them if they didn’t let me out I’d call my uncle at the CIA and have them all spayed and neutered, so they let me go, right away, they were very paranoid. Heh. I have to go back every week and see this Korean glottopsychiatrist on an out-patient basis. But she’s cool, man. I think she digs me and my philosophy. She really gets into my interparietal cortex, if you get my drift. Nice rack, too. She’s a real sweetie.”

 

“Wow. Uh, just by the way,  what are you taking currently?”

 

“Oh, just some designer meth I whipped up in the basement. I call it Purple Knobs. Want some, man?”

 

“Actually I was just asking so I could avoid it. You’re kinda hyper, dude, in case you hadn’t noticed. How long has it been since you slept?”

 

“That’s the whole problem, man, I can’t get any sleep in this heat with all these weirdos knocking on my door wanting me to sign their friggin’ petitions. Plus these religious fanatics ringing my doorbell at all hours of the day and night asking me if I’m interested in some literature about the Elvis Watchpeople – why I came up here to the roof, try to get some peace and quiet. Then I find *you* up here doing nasturtium bhong hits. Last thing I need, dude. Really. I mean, always glad to have you over and everything, but in my current frame of mind last thing I need up here is some superannuated hippie smoking fucking begonias.”

 

“No way, dude, no begonias, no nasturtiums. Just a little mellow homegrown hibiscus. Take a toke, my friend – bring you down a little. Plus I hauled up several gallon buckets of tequila – thought you might be interested.”

 

“Well, if you say so. If you really think it’ll help. Actually I could use some tequila at this point. I’ve been drinking Mountain Dew like a motherfucker for three weeks, being as this meth gives me a tremendous thirst. Plus it’s making all my teeth turn brown and fall out. A little tequila might be a good change of pace. You bring along any limes?”

 

“Got a whole crate, dude. I’ll sit here and we’ll just party hearty in a melodius sort of way until you come down a bit.”

 

“Yeah, I’m beginning to think all that meth might not have been such a good idea. I keep hearing voices in my head – like Frank Zappa saying “Speed kills! Speed kills! Speed kills!” It can be a real bummer, man, staying awake 24/7, reading the UC email list, keeping track of all the raging controversies, not to mention the bizarre personality traits of the writers in the hood. Man, have you noticed what a buncha wackos reside in our immediate vicinity? Not to mention raving lunatics. Not to mention the realators. These people are unreal, man, they must lay awake at night next to their stock tickers watching the real estate values go up and up and up.”

 

“Well, that’s gonna be over pretty soon, dude. In the meantime, here, try this.”

 

He soaked a white bandanna in a bucket of tequila and tied it around his forehead like a Japanese hachimaki.

 

“No way, man.”

 

“Way. It’ll cool you right down. Old trick I learned back in Nam.”

 

So I did likewise, and lo and behold in a few minutes I was feeling more relaxed already. I took a hit on the hibiscus bhong. In the distance toward the east, lasers probed the sky. There was an occasional soft “poof” as ack-ack guns and tracers hit their targets.

 

“Cool light-show, man,” I observed.

 

“Yeah. That’s the Penn UCD militia pulling back to the Green Line. They’re digging out a few clusters of entrenched settlers.”

 

By this time I was mellowing down easy. We sat there in silence watching the sun come up, being careful not to stare directly into the sun’s rays. The rising sunlight highlighted the Center City skyscrapers, creating a jewelled corona over the city.

 

“Most beautiful sight in the world, dude,” murmured Cassidy.

 

I nodded, entranced, too stoned to speak.

 

The sounds of University City awakening wafted to my rooftop. The trolleys hummed softly on the rails. The engines of SUVs and Hummers began coughing gently, like the sound of sheep clearing their throats on a faraway mountain. Yuppies cursed politely as they inspected the dings in their bumpers and the shattered glass from their broken rear windows.

 

Then, suddenly, ragged shouts ruptured the early morning hum.

 

I sat up straight, startled.

 

“Oh, man,” I groaned, “now what is *that* infernal shit?”

 

Cassidy stretched.

 

“Chill, dude. The Yuppies are picketing Le Mandingue Ristorante. The city’s trying to put a 437-bed homeless shelter into that prime property.”

 

Sure enough, as I listened, I could decipher the chants – “Stop the fucking shelter NOW! Stop the fucking shelter NOW!”

 

“Oh, man,” I groaned again. “Just as I was beginning to enjoy some peace and quiet and a gorgeous summer sunrise.”

 

“Don’t let it get to you, dude,” said Cassidy as he prepared to leave. “It’s only castles burning. Listen, bro, I got to get over to Abbraccio. We’re having an all-day Scrabble marathon. Free Portobello omelets if you get there by 8am. Why don’t you come and join us?”

 

“That’s OK,” I replied. “For some reason I don’t feel that hungry right now. I’ll just stay here in the shade of my gazebo with the tequila. Try to regain my composure.”

 

“Whatever,” he said, preparing to descend the rope ladder. “Enjoy yourself. Help yourself to all the hibiscus you want. Have a nice day.”

 

--Ross Bender


The Gentrification of the Hood
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The Science of Cognitive Everything